Are American urban planners fascists? Conservative writer Jonah Goldberg probably thinks so. In his new book, Liberal Fascism, Goldberg argues that Italian fascists were not right-wing conservatives, but left wingers looking for a semi-socialist alternative to communism. Fascism was based on based on a combination of private means of production with government control over what was produced.
From this view, a lot of what American planning advocates say sounds fascist. In New Geographics of the American West, University of Colorado geographer William Travis expresses a desire for a “strong national role in everything from urban design and architecture to countryside protection.” He believes federal or at least state control of land use is needed in order to impose “discipline” on local development.
Travis also says that “We need to build a roster of standing land use watchdog groups” like 1000 Friends of Oregon. Brownshirts, anyone?
In The Land We Share, Eric Freyfogle says that private property is “an institution that communities reshape over time to promote evolving goals.” This is a nice way of saying, “We get to take away your property rights without compensation any time we want.”
In Suburban Nation, Andres Duany and his co-authors tell government planners that their plans should be “drawn with such precision that only the architectural detail is left to future designers.” Duany repented this view at the first Preserving the American Dream conference in Washington DC. There, he distinguished between “smart growth,” which he defined as government efforts to impose lifestyles on people, and “New Urbanism,” which he defined as developers building for a genuine market that exists for higher density, mixed-use communities. He supports New Urbanism, but many of his colleagues and followers still promote smart-growth government control over land uses.
Goldberg’s book raises the specter of the corollary to Godwin’s Law, which says that the first person to invoke Hitler or Nazis in an Internet debate automatically loses. Goldberg skirts this corollary partly because he isn’t writing on the Internet, but mainly because he focuses on fascism, not naziism (though he does include a chapter about Hitler).
With respect to land-use planning, however, any comparison between American planners and fascists is patently unfair. Unfair, that is, to the fascists. In Building New Communities: New Deal America and Fascist Italy, USC architecture historian Diane Ghirardo American planners are far worse than the fascists ever were.
Both Italy and the U.S. built new towns in the 1930s. After they built the towns, says Ghirardo, the fascist government turned the towns over to the residents to use as they saw fit. In contrast, the New Deal planners, led by Rexford Tugwell, maintained strict control over the towns they built.
Residents, even those who were supposedly buying their homes, were not allowed to modify their homes or even the landscaping around them. Government officials retained the right to inspect people’s homes anytime they wanted to make sure that people were not deviating from the government’s plans. Among other things, wives were not allowed to earn a second income outside the homes.
To maximize its control, the government insisted on 40-year mortgages which homebuyers were not allowed to prepay. If anyone did anything in the community that the government did not like, it could and did eject them — causing them to lose any equity they might have earned on their homes.
The rules American planners want to impose today are different but at least as strict. Moreover, they want to impose them on owners in private developments, not just government-built new towns. When it comes to government control, Italian fascists don’t hold a candle to American planners.
Americans all grew up learning that “power corrupts.” So it should be surprising that liberals who believe in freedom and the ACLU are so attracted to giving government more power over individuals. In fact, this impulse to government control is probably universal. As Americans, we should resist this impulse whether it comes from the right or the left.